FDA’s Latest Guidance Doesn’t ‘Get’ Search

The-Makegood_Chris_Tuleya_260Regulated industries aren’t for everyone.  Whether it’s spirits marketing, financial services, pharmaceutical or any of the other categories that carry restrictions on advertising, regulated industries require a certain intimacy with the category, just to understand what can and cannot be executed.

Some media people shy away from these categories, and the effect is exaggerated in digital, where even some regulatory bodies don’t have the best grasp on how things work.  In some rare instances, you can follow the regulatory guidance and still get into hot water.

Like a case earlier this summer, in which the FDA tried to offer up guidance for pharma marketers that had to do with digital platforms with limited character space, like Google and Twitter.  Continuing to insist that these platforms include a fair balance of risks and benefits within ads, the FDA showed examples of using Google’s Extended Site Links product to convey risk information while carrying benefit claims in the sponsored link text.

The problem is that the Extended information doesn’t always show up, and if pharma marketers and their agencies took the FDA guidance at face value, it’s likely that the claimed benefits would show up in quite a few places without the fair balance language that the FDA requires to be traveling with it.  Oops.

To be fair, the guidance was a draft.

Extended Site Links show up only when a pharma advertiser is the top performer for a given search term.  As we all know, bid prices change dynamically and so can Google’s ranking.  The FDA doesn’t seem to know it, though, because if they did, they wouldn’t recommend using the Extended Site Links product to balance out the claims/risks equation.  Check out the example they used:Untitled

What if that ad falls to the #2 result? Goodbye risk information and hello FDA warning letter – that’s what.  Further, what about Google’s syndication partners like ask.com or aol.com (yes, people still search there) that don’t carry the extended information?  Same thing.  And what does the FDA recommend pharma marketers do about Yahoo! and Bing? They still exist.

Because Extended Site Links don’t show up everywhere, we’re back in the boat when it comes to presenting a fair balance between benefits and risks within a run-of-the-mill Sponsored Links ad.  Maybe that can be pulled off in 140 characters on twitter, but with 70 characters’ worth of body copy?  That won’t work for most brands.  Not when the FDA requires that:

  1. Benefit information should be accurate and non-misleading and should be accompanied by risk information
  2. If adequate benefit and risk information cannot all be communicated within the same character- space, then the brand should reconsider using that platform
  3. Brands should communicate both the brand name and generic name, with the generic name listed directly to the right of, or directly below, the brand name

No, when it comes to conveying benefits in branded search ads, it’s best to avoid benefit claims until patients arrive at the website.  Despite the advice of the regulatory body of record, continue to separate the two, because if you follow the FDA’s conflicting advice, you might inadvertently violate their own requirements for search ads.

This column was written by Chris Tuleya, Vice President, eDR, at Underscore Marketing, a boutique firm that creates and manages digital marketing programs. Look for their column the 1st and 3rd Friday of every month.